Unspecified Year: Bigger Thomas 1413: Francesco Baldovino, to enjoy the emoluments of office

1780: The slave Violet, her head stuck on a pole

March 4th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1780 — a month to the day since she had allegedly torched the home of her master, Sampson Sawyers* — a slave woman named Violet was hanged at Staunton.

The above named Violet was led to the barr and upon examination denied the fact wherewith she stands charged whereupon Rebecca Sawyers James Sawyers John Crow and Nan a negroe girl were sworn and examined as witnesses touching the fact as also the examination of the said Violet was taken and subscribed before James Trimble Gent. on consideration of which and of the circumstances relating to the Crime the Court are of opinion that she is guilty, and do accordingly order that she be hanged by the neck until she be dead for the said fact on the fourth day of March next at or near the town of Stanton at twelve o’clock at Noon and after she is cut down that her head be severed from her body by the neck and stuck upon a pole in the public place near Staunton and the Court do adjudge the value of the said slave to one thousand eight hundred pounds which is ordered to be certified

Slave insurrection was, of course, a deadly serious matter in the Old Dominion even in these pre-Nat Turner days. You could lose a whole city to a well-placed incendiary, which made it a particularly — shall we say — high-leverage form of resistance for the disarmed chattel. Women comprised 30% (pdf) of the convicted slave arsonists in colonial Virginia.

According to Philip J. Schwarz, every slave known to have been convicted of arson from 1740 to 1785 drew a death sentence.

The laws only tightened in the 19th century; Virginia went on to mandate death for arson in 1819 — which for slaves included burning not only buildings, but grain. (Source)

As to the grisly public monument made of Violet’s head, an Annals of Augusta County, Virginia remarks that the “custom seems to have been general in Virginia, at this, or an earlier period. The ghastly memorials thus set up were doubtless to inspire a wholesome dread in the minds of the negro slaves. They impressed themselves in many instances as local topographical designations. Witness: negro-foot precinct, in Hanover county, and Negro-head, Negro-foot and Negro-quarter, in Amelia county.”

* Sampson Sawyers was (apparently) the father of Col. John Sawyers, an American Revolution officer about whom more here. The reader will be relieved to learn that despite the loss of the naughty Violet, Col. Sawyers “was one of the extensive slave owners in Knox County in its earlier history. He was able at the marriage of his sons to give each of them several slaves, so that at the emancipation of the slaves in 1863 the Sawyers’ slaves were quite numerous, and right here I wish to pay a tribute to these slaves. Being reared in the Sawyers family, who were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, they were a better class of slaves than was generally to be found in that day.”

That’s Knox County not in Virginia but in Tennessee, where Sampson Sawyers was a signatory (pdf) of the Cumberland Compact.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA,Virginia,Women

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *




Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!